Heart-in-throat Syndrome: Keeping Kids Safe

A young couple I know have been excited to watch their son begin to walk, and then run, in quick succession. A recent video shows him opening a door for the dog.

In approximately five minutes, he will ask for the keys to the car, and then life will get really interesting.

I remember a group of parents discussing the rapidly increasing maturity of their young adolescent children. One mother, whose medical practice had given her a long and broad view, said, “I don’t really worry about sex or drugs. I worry about cars.” The room filled with nervous, not-yet-believing laughter.

I have to agree with her, though. Four of my past students have already died much too young–one from a drug overdose, but three, including Dana, about whom I’ve written, in accidents involving cars.

Meanwhile, a Touchstone alum just posted on Facebook. One of his college friends was in the group of climbers who died this past week on Mt. Ranier.

So I’m thinking about physical risk-taking, and how we negotiate that between the generations, and within ourselves.

playground reaching with net When I first started teaching, it drove me crazy to supervise kids on the playground at school, or in the active outdoor parts of field trips.

Over time I came to enjoy many aspects of this part of teaching–the chance to watch the bees in the morning glories, the chance to savor the liveliness of the kids in their own buzz of physical and social activity, and the chance to admire physical learning as practiced by many kinds of kids. I learned to stand and watch and name for myself everything good and growing that I saw happening–and that always helped me enjoy it more.

Still, the real job was making sure that everyone operated within carefully rationed acceptable levels of risk–and that became only slightly less challenging in all those years.

I’m a cautious person, physically, and always have been, even as a very small child. Watching other people dashing to and fro, I often have to swallow a certain amount of instinctual alarm, no matter how charming the dashing.

playground sprinkler run croppedMy intuitive response is too protective, and I have to correct for that, consciously, by thinking.

Still, again and again, when we talked about playground risk in staff meeting, we all wound up agreeing that we had to follow our intuitions. I can hear a more experienced and very wise colleague saying, “If something feels wrong, stop it first, and then think it through. Every time we ignore our intuition, something bad happens.”

Can you feel the enhanced conflict there, for me or anyone like me? If your intuition is overprotective, you learn to disregard it, to some extent–and that leaves you vulnerable.

I keep remembering Mikey coming down the snow-slicked slide, about to fracture his wrist as he broke his fall when he reached the ground. It happened so fast. If both time travel and stop motion had been available to me, I’d have been able to go back into that moment: to factor in the extra slipperiness provided by snow, along with the thinness of the snow cover, providing no real protection against the frozen bark chips at the bottom of the slide, nearly as hard as concrete. I might, no matter what, have trusted Mikey’s own astonishing physical intelligence. But Mikey was young, still learning what he needed to know to be safely someone so fast, someone for whom motion was so fluid and so full of joy.

His wrist healed. He was also one of the ones killed in a car accident, years later, on his way to a ski team event, so all my stories about him have a special poignancy. Nobody had done anything reckless; it was just the wrong intersection on the wrong slippery day.

It’s hard for anyone to judge the costs and benefits of physical risk for young children, for young adults like the ski team or the lost climbers, for one’s self. Nobody, no parent, no teacher, no coach, can do that right every time.

Meanwhile, our goal must always be to empower kids, and teach them, to judge risk for themselves. If we decide to close the slide preemptively, whenever it’s fast with snow and there’s no bump-buffer at the bottom, we need to explain why, in a way that shares with kids what we know about practical motion physics.

(My husband routinely threatens to stop traffic and hold a quick class for all the nearby grown-ups, on how the force of a collision increases much faster than an increase in the speed. It varies, in fact, as the square of the speed. I’ve heard the lecture.)

playground kids climbing cropped

A kid at Farm School, learning to climb down. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

On the playground and at the park and in the backyard, just as in the classroom or at the dinner table, we need to teach skills, and give kids time to practice skills: not just the jumping or throwing or climbing skills for a particular game, but also the subtler skill, gained only through practice, involved in thinking while moving. Thinking about what’s slippery and the ways slipperiness can change kinetic action; thinking about where your body will be in another few seconds; thinking about other bodies in motion besides your own.

playground motion at farm school cropped

In the playground of life, as I stand and watch and savor the wonderful blur around me, I wind up seeing and appreciating what I saw in school: we each bring many kinds of mental energy to whatever we do, including paying attention. We bring intuitive energy, that lets us notice things and understand them without even trying, the way Bill Bradley knew where the basketball was in relation to his own position, every moment he spent on the court. We bring analytical energy that lets us think through the math problem of the action at hand in a more systematic way. We are so lucky, as a species, to be able to use reflective energy, to  look at experience and learn from it and then remember.

Meanwhile, each of us is different, with a different way of weaving those energies (and others) together. I’ve known kids–and adults–who could judge and ration physical risk with exquisite accuracy, until the game involved social interaction and negotiation also. I’ve known other adults like me, climbing up a tree in a burst of enthusiasm and then freezing, needing the Jackie Lockney voice to playground Jackie Lockney croppedhelp them solve the step-by-step and hand-hold by hand-hold problems involved in getting back down–and needing to do that both in slow motion and with the help of a pal.

At this point, I believe truly that there’s no shame in living any of those variations, only in not growing within whatever combination of energies you have. I need to listen to people who don’t see physical risk my way, because I have things to learn from them–but the reverse is true also. Every year I last, I can say with more certainty that there’s nobody here but us goofers, and with the best intentions in the world we will all make mistakes, and need the mercy of others’ forgiveness, and our own.

With any luck, parents’ wisdom about all these things grows and deepens, as we help each child become her own person-in-motion-with-an-active-brain. We watch with both sober concern and wild grateful joy.

And when the time comes, sooner than anyone can believe, we take a deep breath, and hand over the car keys.

Ellis Island Stories

 On one of my first trips to Ellis Island, with my family, we were part of the annual surge of people into the national parks, on the day after Thanksgiving. (‟Highest attendance, nationwide,” the rangers told us.)

ellis island hallMoving from exhibit to exhibit in that throng, I overheard an older woman telling her companions about her own father’s journey to America, alone, at the age of 12. As she stood above the Great Hall, where people were sorted–allowed in or refused and sent away–stories she had heard all her life took on new shape.

On the ferry back to New Jersey, listening to all the languages around us, I leaned over to my husband and asked, ‟How many?” and he listened for a few minutes and said, ‟Maybe twenty?” We were surrounded by another pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of new immigrants, come to honor that shrine of the old immigration.

None of our own close relatives came through Ellis Island—his mother came after the island was closed; my ancestors, like the rest of his, came centuries ago, when nobody was counting or checking or manning the gate in any way; when people just came.

Still, the story we felt around us is universal—all those people, in all their languages, were saying so—and we were deeply moved.

The parents of my students helped me figure out how to get us there, from our distance in Massachusetts. The first time, Gail Epstein and David Tapscott arranged for us to stay with relatives near New York City, taking over their rooms in a giant sleepover. (Thus the comment–in the recording below, that shows part of our debriefing session once we got back–about not stepping on anyone.)

ellis island debrief higher contrast

Another year, Carol Bedrosian, now the editor of Spirit of Change, arranged a bus for a day trip, and helped the class throw a car-wash to defray some of the costs. It was a very long day. We left from Grafton at 5:30 am, and returned about midnight. Still, it worked, and we used that way of getting to Ellis Island many more times.The trip book–a combined guide and workbook, the sort of thing teachers can create and use in the wonderful age of photocopying–included games to play on the bus. We chose a video to watch on the way home, and the few kids who didn’t pass out cold in extremely odd positions watched along with the adults.

The bus had more room than we needed, and cost a fortune, so we invited parents and grandparents to join us and help cover the cost. Making this a multi-generational field trip had all sorts of benefits. Kids got to know each others’ parents; parents got to know their children’s friends. Especially on the way home, as children slept, parents told each other (and me) their own families’ stories, deeply moving, often full of sorrow and darkness along with hopes fulfilled. With all those generations bearing witness, we settled more deeply into some truths of our history.

When I decided to post here that debrief of the very first class trip, I knew I would have to tell the story of the guy reaching over the railing.

We were exploring in our small groups. My group was in the room with what I called immigration math, huge colorful 3D graphs and interactive maps, showing immigration trends across time. I had designed a day that would echo our day at school: math time in the math room; reading and writing time in the galleries full of photographs; sketching time in a gallery full of the actual objects immigrants had brought with them, candlesticks and prayer books, christening dresses and lockets. Recess time we spent outside, looking for our own relatives on the wall of names, watching the seagulls. All of this was meant to help us feel ourselves mid-harbor, mid-history, mid-melting pot.

Lucy Candib, medical doctor and mother of Addie, was with me there in the math room with our group of four or five kids. Suddenly, we heard the terrible sound of someone’s head hitting the stone floor in the entrance room behind us. A young man from another school had leaned out over the stair railing too far, reaching to a friend, and had tumbled down to the floor below. Lucy was the first person at his side. I saw him on a stretcher, apparently unconscious, as rangers waited for a helicopter to fly him off the island.

All of us, every single one, including me, had to tell that story first, before anything else, when we got home late that night. I had to get past the ghost of that story in order to go back to Ellis Island with kids again. That incident made me tighten my organization for the trip, and recruit kids to be mindful of everyone’s safety. It forced me to think through (again) all the risks teachers take when we leave the classroom with kids, and all the reasons why we should, anyway—because the story of the young man who reached too far was not the only story we all had to tell when we got home, just the first.

Inspired by that woman on the balcony of the Great Hall, imagining her father, I had designed the immigration unit around true immigration stories of family members and friends, people still alive and people known only by the stories still told about them. Kids called uncles in California who knew that stuff; they interviewed their babysitters; they often found family artifacts and brought them in to share. In our work at school, students gathered these stories, distilled them into file card versions to put on a huge timeline stretching around the room, and chose one to write in full and revise for publication.

Always, in any particular class, a good portion of the kids, as many as half, had family stories that linked to Ellis Island–but the assignment didn’t specify that.

At Ellis Island Lewis Hine - Italian child gets her first penny, 1926Ellis Island, I asked the kids to make up a fictional story, also. In a room full of giant portraits of immigrants, near the entrance to the Peopling of the Americas exhibit, each student chose a person from one of the photos: boys and girls, women and men, from several continents.

ellis island photos writing croppedThen, as students moved from section to section in the exhibit, the trip book led them through the corresponding stages of the immigrant experience: a section about saying goodbye, when they left their old homes; a section about finding work; a section about communities of immigrants giving each other comfort and reassurance. After reading some of the text on the walls, looking at the photographs, and listening to recorded accounts on phones placed around the exhibit, each student wrote a journal entry in the voice of his or her chosen person, bearing them through the experience, stage by stage. To the right, Ian Wills and IanTapscott have found a comfortable piece of floor. Below, Mike Costa reads what he’s already written.

ellis island mike costa croppedSometimes a kid chose a photograph that could be a stand-in for a great-great-grandmother or grandfather. Sometimes they chose photographs that could be stand-ins for themselves. Stefan Cunha chose a newsboy yelling out across a street–and for all these years since I have remembered the clarity and power of his writing in that situation.

By the time we got back onto the ferry to leave Ellis Island, each of us was like a set of Russian dolls, with other lives nested inside us: the boy who discovered that the immigrants had come to earn their way into this country with unbelievably hard work; the girl who was let through Ellis Island but had to say goodbye to her father; the aunt who could never fully emerge from the trauma, the shadow, of the pogroms; the teenager who became the family’s translator exactly at the age when he wanted independence; the mother with her children held close all around her, hollow-eyed, all of them hungry and hoping to be better fed.

Ellis Island was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy; it’s only gradually being reopened, and I’ve worried that exhibits I treasured, as a teacher, may have been lost. Even before that, security arrangements put in place after the World Trade Center bombings had so lengthened the process of getting onto the island that it no longer worked for us as a day trip. Meanwhile, I had been learning about Blackstone Valley immigration stories, and had discovered the Museum of Work and Culture in Pawtucket, Rhode Island–not at all the same, but fascinating in its own way. The focus of our work in the fall gradually shifted.

It’s fair to say, though, that all my curriculum work afterward was affected by the Ellis Island field trip experiences, and by the thematic study that grew around them. Looking back I can see shifts: in my sense of what is at stake in curriculum choices; in my sense of the huge and complicated realities young adolescent students can stretch to embrace; and in my sense of the importance of combining, carefully and respectfully, both research and imagination.

Below, Adam Curley and I are too excited to sit down, while various parents huddle and talk in the October wind across the harbor.

ellis island photos ferry cropped

You’d have a hard time tracking people down with these photographs, from several of the earliest trips–so I decided to just go with them. Thanks so much, to everyone who helped these wonderful field trips happen!


My Place and Our Places

Last week, I focused on the book My Place, by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, in which a series of child narrators describe the place where they live–always the same place, on the same hillside, changing as the book moves backward through Australian history. Each of the child narrators has his or her own sense of that same place.

What builds a sense of place, for any of us? What do we even mean by that? What can adults do to give kids a sense of place–or to stay out of the way of their process of developing one?

The book My Place inspired Our Places, a book created by one of my classes in the spring of 2010, when the kids with whom I had worked that year decided that they wanted to make their own maps of their own places, and put them together into a book.

We had discussed other final group projects, but this was the one they chose. “Only it can’t be different years, like My Place, because we’re all living in this year.”

“Just our different places.”

“And we’ll tell about the same kinds of things.”

Here’s a detail from Anwyn’s pages: Our Places Anwyn 1 detail

Pets

By “the same things”, the kids meant the motifs we had noticed in My Place, and then listed, common threads from child narrator to child narrator. For example, in both books, My Place and Our Places, almost every child’s place includes a pet.

Jose wrote about his dog, Clayton. Our Places Jose 1b detail

Other kids wrote about cats named Oliver, or Shelly, or Scout. One described a parakeet named Tweety. Our Place Isy 1b detail with Penny

Another wrote about her hen, Penny, who is “smarter than the other chickens and always bosses the other chickens around, even though she is the smallest.”

Parties

In both books, there’s always some kind of party. Luke lives in two separate houses with the two sides of his family. He decided to write about the place where he lives part of the week with his dad, in a section of Boston. Our Places Luke 1 block party

The detail below is from Caroline, who had already explained that her next-door neighbors were “almost like grandparents.” Our Places Caroline 2b party detail We didn’t coordinate which kinds of parties which kids would write about, but we wound up with an interesting variety: birthday parties, generic summer parties, a Halloween party, a Super-Bowl-watching party, a Fourth of July party with lots of fireworks, a Christmas party, and the gathering to send a big sister off to her prom.

“Some of the parties in My Place are for sad occasions, not happy ones.”

“Like Michaelis going away to Vietnam.”

“Or Thommo’s family getting thrown out of their apartment.” 

“Or there’s the time when the war is over, and some people cry because they’re glad the war is over, but sad that their boys aren’t coming home.”

“But that year’s kid walks on stilts and gets everyone to stop crying.”

Connections to the past

We talked about what the students could include that would be like the giant fig tree at the top of the hill in My Place, a landmark experienced and valued by every child narrator across a 200 year span.
Should the students each focus on some natural feature? They settled on just something old: an old tavern, the stone walls along which chipmunks and squirrels run, an old car, cemeteries, a big rock.
Our Places Dean 1 rock detail

 Freedom

Growing up in a time when some kids are asked to check in with their parents by cell phone as often as every half hour, my students had been interested in the way the My Place kids roamed all over their neighborhood or hillside, with and without permission. Although we hadn’t chosen it as a common thread, several students wrote about their range of freedom, and how that had changed as they’d gotten older.

For example, Abby described being allowed to bicycle further: Our Places Abby bicycling detail

Another girl marked in green the streets on her map where she was allowed to walk by herself.

Maps

These were sketch maps, like the ones in My Place, made to scale as well as kids could manage, but not based on detailed measurements. (That would be another project.) Here’s Abby’s map of her newly enlarged territory: Our Places Abby 2 map Some kids made their maps more accurate with the help of published maps, by tracing or just looking at an existing map or aerial photo to get a sense of relationships. Our Places Nate 2 map detail Like the maps in My Place, the student maps told parts of each child’s story. Our Places Max 2b

So what builds a sense of place?

A sense of place can’t require staying put. In My Place, the final narrator, an aboriginal child, says, “I belong to this place,” instead of “This is my place.” But the place shown is just one of several places where that extended family stays for different parts of the year.

What would it be like to stay in one place? Barangaroo’s grandmother says nobody would do that; it would be boring. For sure, though, Barangaroo has detailed knowledge and a strong emotional connection with that place.

When I moved to the house and neighborhood I think of as “where I grew up”, I had already lived in seven previous places.

Our Places Polly map detailMany of my students spoke in discussion about special summer places, or even, for one, a place she’d been only once, but memorably. I too had been strongly influenced by places where I’d never actually lived, including my Maine grandparents’ dairy farm, and my other grandmother’s urban lot in Brockton, Massachusetts, where I met the kids who lived on the street, and established hide-outs in the bushes.

Who knows? The sense of contrast between a variety of places may focus a child’s attention on the uniqueness of each place. Our Places Matt treehouse detailIn any case, here’s what seems to be more important than duration: a child’s active experience of the place. To bond with a place, a child needs experience of that place within some kind of freedom to explore, to take risks, to know a range of emotions, to act on a sense of possession. To grow her own garden and decide what to plant in it; to build a treehouse with his uncle, or a dam across the creek, or to follow the path across the brook; to create a little secret get-away under a wisteria bush.

Each experience becomes a tag, a label on the mental map the child is constantly creating, partly unconsciously. Each tag gets reviewed with revisits either physical or mental. Few kinds of learning more clearly deserve characterization as constructive learning, learning fitted together and made coherent by the learner; learning that constructs meaning instead of receiving it–in this case, meaning that is especially deep and nourishing.

I’m struck by the importance of peers in this process of place-bonding: siblings, or neighborhood pals, or cousins, or even rambunctious dogs–fellow explorers, with their own impulses and their own hesitations, often useful.

Time on one’s own matters also, and this is demonstrated in all my students’ equivalents of the hide-out in the My Place giant fig tree: their solitary bike rides, walks over to Dean Park, and charitable activities for ants.

On the other hand, for anyone who thinks that young adolescents don’t care about grownups: notice the importance of both parents and other adults, the next door sort-of-grandparents, the almost adult who babysits, the neighbor who takes all the kids for a ride in his old car, while everyone squeals going around the corners.

I loved how much I learned about each of these students, in the process of learning about their connections with their places. Teachers have to live with various kinds of grief, and one of them is this: it’s not possible to do every wonderful thing with every class. But I can’t help wishing I could have, and sometimes, in a group of adults, I have an almost irrepressible impulse to give them this assignment.

(Maybe some readers will comment with labels you would write on your own map, if you made one.) (Or with your own map.)

When we agreed to make the book, I said I would figure out how to send a copy to Nadia Wheatley. It took several steps of contact, and involved some suspense. Eventually, that summer, a package came back from Wheatley with thanks warmly expressed, and with a wonderful surprise: a DVD of episodes from the video series made for Australian television in the year of the book’s twentieth anniversary, with extra episodes to carry the story to 2008, exploring new dimensions of belonging or not belonging.

The video is wonderful, and does special justice to the book’s theme of transcending differences. Still, I feel as I often do about film adaptations of books I love: the book means more to me. It’s less about excitement, television style, and more purely about the role of place in our lives, the responsibilities a place can grow in us, and the ways sharing a place can connect us.

Marian and the Gardens

garden marian and cecily plantingMarian Hazzard thinks that every school should fit a garden into its landscape somehow, even if it’s just in a couple of buckets. Every child should have the enlightening and empowering experience of producing food.

As one of Touchstone’s founding parents, teachers, and guardian angels, Marian always put her heart and soul into nurturing the school. She taught reading and writing and math, along with interdisciplinary approaches to science and social studies, in classes of her own. She gave special effort to helping groups of students become communities of learners.

Then, after many years, she decided to focus on a part of children’s learning that mattered especially for her, and she put the same energy and spirit–the same combination of fierceness and tenderness–into helping kids learn to garden. She did that on a wider scale than most folks in the community realized, through organizations devoted to helping young people understand the production of food. (She’s been most active in Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom, serving on the board, chairing a Mini-Grant Committee, mentoring novice gardners, and presenting  workshops at conferences.)

Meanwhile, Marian also spent many hours of every week back at Touchstone, and could be seen at any hour of the day, often grubby and muddy and wearing a trademark straw hat, gardening herself, working with groups of students, and helping other adults learn how to work with gardens and kids, in the fullest and richest ways possible.

A garden gives so much to a school.

violet and anjali planting Growing beings, every one of us, we nonetheless don’t necessarily expect to be interested in the growth of plants from stage to stage—but almost every student is captured by the actual phenomena.

Here, older and younger kids work together to plant seeds that will germinate and sprout under grow lights in the classrooms. Translate that into: right under the kids’ noses; cheered on by kids’ voices; handy to be measured or sketched.

garden sam plantingHere, a student transplants a seedling into  a larger container, to sell at the school’s very own Farmer’s Market, which did a land-office business on a table off to the side at dismissal.

garden seedling sale

Below, another student writes a careful label for her tray of plants. The labels were cut-up strips of plastic yogurt containers. Marian encouraged not just a school garden, but a sustainable, green school.

garden mia planting croppedIt’s interesting and fun to help a garden grow. This class took part in several giant transplant-athons, joking as they went. (Many thanks to Whit Andrews for contributing his photographs of the fun.)

Of course, group work on garden tasks builds more than the garden. It nurtures social and emotional connection, building community.

garden Ben and Emma planting cropped

Engaging science investigations can be centered on the garden. In one project, students examined compost samples at different stages of decomposition, to see what small invertebrates they would find there. (The school greenhouse can be seen in the distance, and a helpful book, Compost Critters, can be glimpsed in the foreground.)

garden studying compost greenhouse

garden change leavesA garden teaches kids about life cycles, and that counts, always, as both science and emotional education. In this photo, taken in the greenhouse by students combing the campus for evidence of change, some plants are flowering while others are dying. Many years, some of the garden’s plants were grown from seeds produced by plants allowed to go to seed the previous year.

garden strawberriesThrough all this, kids and adults both, we observe food webs and nutrient cycles, both like and unlike the ones the adults memorized in high school biology. Sunshine helps strawberries ripen. Teachers and older kids help younger kids figure out how to share the strawberries. Strawberries too squoogey for human eating become wonderful treats for the chickens, who produce fresh eggs, which are a revelation for anyone who’s only known store-bought eggs.

chicken eating plant scrapIn another example, it’s easy to observe how much living things need water, a lesson likely to have life-and-death importance in the times in which these students will live. Here, you can see a watering can for the strawberries in the background, and a water dispenser for the chickens. This chicken feasts on plant scraps pushed through the chicken wire by kids at recess.

garden slugThe garden is a great place to sit and sketch, and sketching can be a wonderful way to notice what’s happening. Here, a small slug explores the squash leaves in a garden planted near the school’s parking lot–well-placed for sun, and thus good for squashes. But the leaves in shadow, or early in the morning, are also good places to find slugs. (One year, we had a bumper crop of butternut squash, and Tamara’s class did an official census.)

I loved also the plants nobody would ever eat, and spent many recesses standing by the morning glories along the fence, sneaking peeks into the universe of each flower.

garden sketch morning glory

I wish I had more photographs of what we harvested, which often disappeared quickly: salads, potatoes, cherry tomatoes. Real food. I hope that someone who reads this will have (and post, in a comment) a photograph of Marian’s amazing car, embellished by colorful graphics of carrots and beets and garden invertebrates, a rolling advertisement for vegetable glory.

Marian has a wonderful laugh and smiles often, but she is deeply serious when she says, “The world is changing, and these kids may well need to know how to grow their own food.” We all need to know how to take care in these ways; how to harness various kinds of natural magic in real and practical strategies that could mean survival.

For everything she gave to the garden, Marian had a small supply budget, some years, and several gifts from particular grateful parents, to do things like build new beds and erect a greenhouse. Her own work she donated, as a volunteer. I’m putting that in the past tense, because Marian has stepped back, after recruiting a garden teacher–and raising the money to pay his stipend.

I know you’re still there, Marian, in the background, offering advice and support. Here, in November, as the days suddenly shorten, I want to send you my thanks in the form of flowers, wisteria climbing on the school gazebo. May the Touchstone garden, and you, Marian, and everyone whose sense of the world you’ve greened, continue to thrive and grow.

garden wisteria

Taking Temperatures

insulation mittsSomeone, in a long proud parade of projects time parent volunteers, knew she would be doing temperature experiments with her small group, and arrived carrying these perfectly designed mitts.

(If you know where the credit should be assigned, please comment!)

using temperature mitts editThe mitts are made of plastic baggies, filled with puffy stuff for insulation. For the plastic peanuts and the fleece, there are two bags, one inside another, flipped edge to edge so they could zip together and contain, between them, a consistent depth of insulation.

Into the baggies, kids inserted a Vernier temperature probe, a specially designed thermometer with a line to attach it to a computer interface. Measuring the temperatures of small buckets of ice or heated water, they examined the data on real-time graphs, which were created by Vernier software on the computer. Students could see the curve as the temperature rose or fell. The mitts let them compare the effectiveness of various kinds of insulation.

Without a live demonstration of the use of real-time graphing using probes of this sort, I find it difficult to convey the dramatic POW! of the experience. The whole activity of graphing suddenly makes more sense. Kids see clearly the relationship between the x axis (usually time) and the y axis (measurements of temperature, light, force, gas pressure, sound, proximity…or any of a number of attributes for which probes have been designed.)

Here’s a graph of a very simple trial, in which a student held the temperature probe directly in her hand. The graph rises gradually to a peak, then falls off quickly—but not instantly—when the person’s hand is removed.

heat graph

Sometimes we compared: which hand was warmer, right or left? Did that correlate with the person’s handedness in any way? Could we be sure of the correlation, or were there too many other variables, not controlled?

(In many programs, it’s possible to graph several trials on the same screen, using different colors. For example, we could graph the data from the right hand in red and the data from the left hand in green, or graph multiple trials for each hand in assigned colors. The software also provides a full table of the data, and instant statistics including the range and the mean.)

We did experiments of this sort before we had computer probes, of course, just using regular thermometers. In the very earliest years of using The Voyage of the Mimi, thinking about whales and the insulating effect of blubber, we found ways to test the effectiveness of insulation, and these mitts would have been perfect.

More recently, working with the occasional use of a small classroom set of iPads, we used a Vernier temperature probe along with a interface called a LabQuest2, to let us gather and graph temperatures outside, streaming the graphs, as they were drawn, on multiple iPads.

Here’s a group who’ve come inside to debrief. (You can see the temperature probe in Abi’s hand.) They were playing a game called Microclimate Tic-tac-toe, and looking at the tic-tac-toe grid on the small whiteboard in Patty’s hand, to review what they’d found. For now, it’s enough to say that they were searching for microclimates: localized, specialized conditions of temperature, light, and moisture.

microclimate group with Patty

ipad temp workThis group has found very hot temperatures on a large black tire on the playground. They can feel the high temps even with their fingers.

Another student uses a second iPad to watch the graph  as it’s drawn from the probe data.

temp work damp soil

Meanwhile, there’s a much cooler place nearby, in the shadowed, moist soil next to the tire.

The very compact LabQuest2 device is just visible in the lower left corner of the photo. It communicates with the iPads using one of the school’s WiFi networks.

fall projects Morgan

Here are members of another group working inside, finding the coolest and warmest temperatures they could locate in the classroom.

John reaching edited

What did we want the kids to get from all this data collection? We wanted students to join the admirable horde of humans who’ve started out understanding the world by figuring out how to measure it. We wanted students to feel comfortable describing the world in quantitative terms, in numbers with a unit of measurement attached.

In this case, measuring temperature, we wanted students to become flexible about using either Fahrenheit or Celsius, and we wanted them to operate at an intersection between data collected with appropriate measurement tools, and the testimony of their own senses, so that the numbers acquired sensory meaning.

I’m working on this post on a perfect day for searching for microclimates outside: a chilly wind, bright sun. In conditions like these, kids could easily find temperatures varying by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, often within a few feet of each other.

And if students were hungry for something really dramatic, we’d send them off to check the hood of a black car in the parking lot. They might never look at a black car on a sunny day in quite the same way again.

Chasing the River, Part 2

In a previous post, I described a student named David who decided to “chase the river”–more accurately the series of brooks and ponds and rivers–that carried his backyard runoff to the sea.

Many students after David found their own watershed pathways, working with the classroom set of topographic maps and other resources. Our distribution varied, from year to year, but we always had a fair number of students who lived in the school’s own watershed, the Blackstone River watershed, along with many from the Sudbury, Assabet, Concord and Nashua sections of the Merrimack watershed to the north, a few from the Charles River watershed, to the east, and a few from the Quinnebaug, to the southwest.

Kids had all sorts of adventures following their watershed pathways, naming nameless brooklets and ponds, asking helpful neighbors what they knew, and playing in the mud.

Once, when we were stumped, I made a house call. Marissa lived on the very top of a hill, typically a watershed boundary. According to the map, her front yard would drain into the Sudbury, and her backyard into the Charles. In actual fact, it all went into the street drains, whose outflow ran into a holding pond, whose outflow ran into the Charles. Not for anything would I have missed that rainy afternoon slogging around in rubber boots, peering down through street drains to be sure which way the water was flowing.

Eventually, with the help of other map freaks, I discovered National Geographic’s Topo software, which let a student use a mouse to trace a pathway on a seamless electronic topographic map, then printed for us the annotated map that resulted. So a student could start with the little trickle that ran across the back of her yard, and keep going, without even needing hip waders or bug repellent. (It’s a shame to miss that entirely, though, and most kids got both experiences: on the map and on the ground.)

Andrew working with Topo cropped

Once a student had done his electronic tracing, he could ask the software for an elevation profile, and see how his pathway was all going downhill, except for a lake or a pond–a long flat stretch–or a place where a hand twitched and the path climbed out of the river briefly. To trace a pathway from brook to pond to river, then flip that path and see it from the side, sliding down the edge of the continent—that was pretty cool.

tracing watershed pathway cropped

If a small group of kids did this together, squeals and screams might erupt from their corner of the classroom, applauding the kid who just kept “sailing” down Narragansett Bay all the way to the open Atlantic. The group above, working with Terry Lunt, parent volunteer extraordinaire, is following the unfamiliar path of a classmate who lives way out in Charlton.

Kids who shared the lower part of their pathways, what they called “the big river,” could meet together and see, for example, how much area was drained, by all their different routes, to become the power of the Blackstone, harnessed for the mills and re-channeled for the canal that gave the Blackstone Valley so much of its identity.

Then what? The maps and their pathways could be put up in the hall for the rest of the school to see.

Topo watershed printouts whole group cropped

Like a dare to everyone passing by: wherever you live, some story like this belongs to you. You can go find out, and you can get started with a map.

Some years, students created posters to share with each other and parents at a special watershed night. Some years, we were even more ambitious, ridiculously ambitious. At the outset of Touchstone’s Older Student Program–supported by a state arts grant and with the help of a wonderful video consultant, Veda Reilly–Katy Aborn and I worked together to create a multi-part video called Voyage to the Sea. Voyage included documentary sections about topics such as the water cycle and water power, as well as story sections about two teams engaged in a regional competition called The Blackstone Watershed Relay.

In the final chapter of the video story, Bill McHenry, then director of Touchstone’s Extended Day Program, posed as the director of the Watershed Protection Association, the fictitious nonprofit that sponsored the equally fictitious relay. Speaking to students who had become fired-up environmentalists as a result of learning about their watersheds, Bill repeated a quote from Bernie McGurl of the Lackawanna River Association, one of thousands of real-life organizations of people who have gathered together to learn about their watersheds and to protect the quality of the water flowing through them.

Water has a voice. It carries a message that tells those downstream who you are and how you care for the land.

Within those words, and within all these connected river-chasing experiences, there are lessons within lessons, like watersheds within watersheds: lessons about the ways learning is grounded and deepened and enriched by attention to place; lessons about everything that flows to us and everything that flows from us, and the responsibilities we share with others and to others; lessons about what we can learn from each others’ small views, flowing together to become a wide view; lessons about the power of the learning community.

If you want to get started on your own watershed adventure, here’s a good place to begin: http://cfpub.epa.gov/surf/locate/index.cfm 

Or you can just put on your boots and head out the door. Don’t forget the map!

Chasing the River

As a teacher learning along with my students, I met Donna Williams, watershed wizard at the Massachusetts Audubon Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary. She told us that the word watershed means the area from which rainwater or snowmelt drains into a particular body of water. You’re always standing in a watershed, even if your feet are dry.

Watersheds are often split by town or state boundaries, complicating efforts to protect them. Before the Blackstone River could be cleaned up in any significant way, the watershed of the river, draining large areas of both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, had to get over those political identities, and some economic rivalries, too, and start thinking like a watershed, an area with a lot to gain by working together. Knowing about watersheds can help us understand both the organization of ecosystems, and the impact of environmental damage–and environmental improvement.

To make it even more interesting, we live in watersheds within watersheds.

When my hillside gets a heavy rainfall, whatever doesn’t soak into the ground runs downhill into one of several small brooks which braid together to be called Indian Brook. So I live in the Indian Brook watershed.

A couple miles downstream, Indian Brook runs up against a dam and forms the Hopkinton Reservoir, in Hopkinton State Park, which looked like this on September 18, 2013, at a time of low water and not much color yet in the leaves.

Hopkinton Reservoir cropped

After it emerges from the reservoir, Indian Brook twists and turns some before it runs into the Sudbury River, near the tracks for the MBTA train to Boston. Meandering through Ashland and Framingham, the Sudbury runs beside the Massachusetts Turnpike briefly, then heads north, through the marshes of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. In Concord, the Sudbury joins up with the Assabet River at a place called Egg Rock, to become—presto change-o—the Concord River.

This photo of Egg Rock was taken in 1904 by Alfred Sereno Hudson [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons] from the very beginning of the Concord River, with the Assabet to the right, and the Sudbury out of sight to the left.

Egg_Rock_1904

By the time it gets to the Concord River, my backyard runoff is traveling with that of many of my past students, from Hopkinton and Southborugh and also from Westborough, Marlborough, Northborough, Sudbury, and Wayland. The story isn’t over, though, until we get to the ocean.

In Lowell, the Concord joins the Merrimack River, saying hello to a tremendous share of the runoff water from New Hampshire and central Massachusetts. Go check on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merrimack_River, and you’ll see what I mean, unless someone takes the map down. Hundreds of thousands of people live with me in the Merrimack watershed. Of course, for a humbling comparison, you could check out how much of North America is drained by the Mississippi.

Anyway, back to New England, all these waters head for Newburyport and the Atlantic, shouting for glory as they go, especially in flood season.

Many explorations opened up this story for me: walking parts of my watershed pathway, canoeing other parts—swimming in some places!—and tracing all of it on maps.

Like so many explorations in my life, this one started with something a student wanted to do. For a big individual report, David Gelman wanted to ‟chase” his own watershed pathway. Here’s something interesting: although David and his family lived only a couple of miles from me, his pathway was completely different, and led to the Atlantic via Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

While everyone else was reading books, David and I sprawled on the floor to read topographic maps. Step by step we figured out which body of water led to which, using the topographic contour lines to make sure we were headed steadily downhill, the way water does. At the same time, we figured out all the places where roads followed, or where bridges crossed, the succession of brooks and ponds that led David’s backyard runoff to the Mill River and then the Blackstone River.

Armed with that information, David and yet another amazing Touchstone parent, his mother Rosemary, went adventuring, ‟chasing the river.” They managed to find almost every road crossing of their watershed pathway. At each stop they did simple visual tests for water quality, and took photographs. Their thoroughness was inspiring to everyone else, and deeply satisfying for them.

David wound up knowing something about his place in the world that I wanted more kids to have a chance to know–and more grown-ups, for that matter, beginning with myself.

This stream of thought (I couldn’t resist) could go on for quite a while–It would take much more than one blogpost to tell about everywhere that led. Think of your power, David, wherever you are!

Next time, finally, I’ll jump forward to the 2012-2013 year, when we were studying New England, and did some work with watersheds using Topo software. Down by the virtual riverside.